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The best literary podcasts of 2020

You're booked podcast presenter Daisy Buchanan with John Waters. Photo: Twitter - Credit: Archant

CHARLIE CONNELLY runs his eye over the ever-growing range of literary podcasts

Back in the olden days of broadcasting you’d struggle to find much in the way of literary discussion or representation coming through the ether. On television you’d get the odd parasol-twirling adaptation of a Regency novel, jowly men in heavy tweed jackets sitting in darkened studios indulging in pretentious late-night discussions through a fog of cigarette smoke, and Bernard Cribbins on Jackanory. Beyond that, pickings were slim.

Radio has always been a little better served. On BBC Radio 4 you can listen to Book of the Week in the morning and Book at Bedtime late at night and tune in to shows like Open Book and A Good Read, while local radio schedules are sprinkled with authors frantically trying to plug their new books in 10-minute interview slots between the travel bulletin and Mary from Stourbridge phoning in to guess the intro to a famous song and win a foot spa.

Otherwise books have always struggled to be heard among the many competing cultural claims to our airwaves. For one thing books are by nature not an aural medium, the words on the page become voices only inside our heads. For another, if people are going to discuss particular books in detail then it’s less likely to engage those who haven’t read them, not to mention the potential for spoilers. Either way, it’s almost as if radio and television gave up on exploring possible new options for literature. The regular programme vehicles that exist today do a great job, but they’re being eclipsed by another medium altogether. The potential for expanding the range and scope of literary broadcasting is currently best served by podcasting.

They’ve been around a long time now, battering well into their second decade, but podcasts have never been more diverse than they are today, a range of voices in a range of topics that radio can’t hope to corral into a broadcast schedule. It’s a platform with limitless potential, from slick professional programmes put together by award-harvesting production companies to a fella in his bedroom with a laptop, a microphone from eBay that was only 10 quid (including postage) and opinions about things he loves that he wants you to hear.

It’s this DIY aspect of podcasting that makes it so consistently fresh and exciting, especially today when the equipment is relatively cheap and it’s easier than ever to make your podcast available to the whole world. In theory podcasting’s lo-fi technology and ease of access to an audience make it a meritocracy, one where Martin from Berkshire’s hour-long monologues about the lizard people infiltrating his local post office and stealing his birthday cards has equal status on a broadcast platform with, say, the BBC’s highly-polished analyses of international affairs.

While that’s certainly worth a hearty high-five, it also represents one potential pitfall of the podcast: quantity does not necessarily guarantee quality. While some have professional standards in terms of both presenters, content and production there are many that sound like they were recorded in bathrooms, cathedrals, underwater, inside items of luggage and during a typhoon. Some even manage to sound like all five at once.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, not having a specially-recorded theme tune and a selection of catchy jingles doesn’t by definition make a bad podcast, ultimately it’s the quality of what’s being said that counts. But the sheer numbers of shows vying for our attention can make it hard to find the sharp wit among the lame bantz.

Among the true crime documentaries, UFO conspiracists and sarcastically adoring analyses of popular TV shows there is a particularly healthy genre of podcast devoted to all things bookish. With a broad range of reviews, reminiscences, genre celebrations and author interviews, lowering yourself into the depths of the ‘you might also like’ section of your chosen podcast platform can open up a whole world of bookish delights.

But what makes a good one? Is it topicality and big name interviews that count? Or is it something more? Of the big hitters, the weekly Guardian Books podcast, presented by Claire Armitstead, Sian Cain and Richard Lea, combines news from the world of books with in-depth interviews and features. It’s professionally put together and manages to turn around topical subjects with an impressive combination of speed and depth.

Just this year alone they’ve had big interviews with Costa Prize-winning novelists Sarah Collins and Jonathan Coe as well as pinning down Jeanine Cummins, whose American Dirt has caused uproar for what many see as her cultural appropriation of the stories of Mexican immigrants trying to make it into the US (the book’s selection by Oprah Winfrey for her book club two weeks ago blew the lid off an already simmering controversy).

Yet the beauty of good literary podcasts is that don’t have to be topical. Some of the best ones out there discuss books that came out years, if not centuries, ago and can make them as new and exciting as that tang of fresh ink you get between the pages of a brand new book.

One such example is Backlisted, presented by the founder of the Unbound crowdfunded publishing platform John Mitchinson and Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously. Backlisted reached its 100th episode last autumn, a century of literary treasure into whose archive it’s well worth a delve.

In each episode a studio guest – usually an author – talks about a book they love way beyond simple gushing, drawing the listener into their enthusiasm guided by the presenters who appear to have somehow read and retained absolutely everything ever published. It’s almost the antithesis of the Guardian show, rarely featuring books that have appeared in recent years, guaranteeing knowledge, insight, enthusiasm and passion in the discussions.

The first episode, uploaded way back in 2015, discussed J.L. Carr’s novella A Month in the Country, and given that I firmly believe it’s a book as close to perfection as anything ever written in the English language, that set the bar high from the start. It’s remained in place ever since.

The 100th episode saw Philip Pullman discussing Robert Burton’s 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, a 1,200-page whopper and a book that brought around Pullman’s kitchen table possibly the only three living people who’ve actually read it. Mitchinson and Miller’s expertise and erudition can sometimes make the podcast veer close to being a little too pleased with itself, but those moments are more than made up for by the quality of the presentation, guests and books chosen.

Literary podcasts are at their best when presented this way, in imaginative formats that go way beyond basic author interviews plugging their latest release. Given that most promotional interview schedules are concertinaed into a couple of weeks around publication it’s easy for a writer to fall into glassy-eyed autopilot responses, especially as most of the questions tend to be the same.

Taking away that hothouse pressure of cramming as much essential information about a new book as possible into the short time allowed makes for a much better listen. Backlisted’s guest authors come alive talking about books they love that aren’t their own and, given the show runs for a good hour or more, it permits an absorbing intimacy that grows with the luxury of time.

The same is true of You’re Booked, a podcast in which author and journalist Daisy Buchanan invites herself into a writer’s house, marches them to their bookshelves and discusses their contents. You’re Booked only began in 2018 and from relatively modest beginnings – yours truly was an early guest – has developed such a reputation that its list of interviewees is now stellar. Barbara Trapido, David Nicholls, Jess Phillips, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Perry and Diana Henry have been grilled recently by Buchanan about their reading choices, while most recently Daisy Jones and the Six author Taylor Jenkins Reid and filmmaker John Waters invited You’re Booked into their homes as the show went international.

Again this is a format that succeeds by having a structural premise to anchor the episode while also permitting the interview to wander off on tangents. This allows the subjects to talk about things they wouldn’t normally be asked and we learn more about the books and more about the person talking about them.

Buchanan is a warm and funny presenter who wears her huge depth of reading lightly and draws out from her subjects everything from moving memories of childhood joy to sheepishly-admitted guilty pleasures.

Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast ingeniously combines the best ingredients of a literary podcast: an in-depth interview with an author about their new book coupled with a list of regular questions about the writer’s wider reading tastes, two sections that are split into separate episodes.

Presented by Mayo and his former BBC radio sidekick Matt Williams, the warmth between the two helps to coax the author a good distance from the pat responses that less skilled interviewers might evince. It often helps if, like Simon Mayo, you already have an established name or brand.

Slightly Foxed is a long-running quarterly journal in which authors write a short piece about a book or writer that means something to them. As the name (an antiquarian bookselling term describing the condition of an old volume) implies this isn’t about keeping a finger on the literary zeitgeist (their stated aim is to introduce readers “to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal”) and the associated podcast launched a year or so ago reflects the erudition, intelligence and wide-ranging enthusiasm of the magazine and its contributors.

Each episode is given a broad theme and guests are then selected on the strength of it. Recent episodes have dealt with the vital spark that prompts a lifelong love of reading, the growth and development of literary festivals and a visit to Orkney in search of George Mackay Brown, a range of subjects that are explored in a depth you might not find on more traditional broadcast formats.

Creating a good literary podcast is not rocket science (but there are plenty of podcasts for that too). An original premise is essential, one that’s solid enough to keep the thing on the straight and narrow while allowing for reasonable deviations and tangents. An engaging presenter or presenters who know their stuff but are happy to take a back seat in favour of their guests and are capable of steering rather than dominating the conversation are rarer than you might think but essential for a good podcast. Combine those two facets, avoid in-jokes, lame banter and audible flatulence and you can’t really go wrong. It’s that simple, and if radio and television had realised this earlier they might not have been left so far behind.

All the podcasts mentioned in this piece are freely available on a range of platforms.

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